The UK’s Health Protection Agency is warning families who own reptiles about the risks of Salmonella, following the diagnosis of salmonellosis in 9 Merseyside children in the past 6 months. All the affected kids had direct or indirect contact with reptiles. Three of them (all less than three years of age) were hospitalized. One of them, an infant who was infected at four weeks of age, is still sick five months later.

Salmonella is commonly found in or on healthy reptiles. All reptiles should be considered Salmonella carriers, and handled accordingly. Standard guidelines are that children under the age of five, along with immunocompromised individuals, the elderly and pregnant women, should avoid contact with reptiles. The reason for this is clearly evident here, with the bacterium having caused serious illness in these young children.

Thinking that you can eliminate the risk in a high-risk household by making sure the high-risk person  never handles the reptile isn’t adequate. There are numerous reports of Salmonella infections in people who never had direct contact with the reptile.  Salmonella can be spread from the reptile’s enclosure to other parts of the house, resulting in indirect infections. 

Reptiles can make great pets (I used to have tortoises and turtles). However, reptiles are responsible for a large and disproportionate number of Salmonella infections in people, and high-risk households should not have reptiles. People with reptiles need to take basic infection control measures seriously, including:

  • Washing hands after contact with reptiles.
  • Never cleaning aquaria or terrariums in kitchen or bathroom sinks.
  • Never bathing or soaking reptiles in the bathtub, or kitchen or bathroom sinks.
  • Keeping reptiles confined to their enclosures and not allowing them to roam the house.

More information about turtles and Salmonella can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.